Little Blue Moon Theatre


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Rencontres Internationales de Théâtre de Papier, 11-14 May, 2006

Little Blue Moon Theatre’s Report from the Mourmelon Paper Theatre Gathering, 2006

On May 11-14, a gathering of paper theatre companies communed in the Champagne District of Northern France for the fifth Paper Theatre Festival organized by Alain Lecucq. Paper Theatre, also called Toy Theatre is a miniature theatre form generally constructed of paper, or primarily of paper. Traditionalists may include in their definition that the characters and sets also be 2 dimensional. Our current toy theatres had their genesis in Europe in the mid 1800s. In early 19th century England pantomime shows were popular. These performances, influenced by the Italian Commedia del Arte performances, featured panorama backdrops that moved, and two dimensional sets with flat scenic pieces that lent themselves nicely to the toy theatre as it evolved as a flat, printed medium. Artists and printers would produce paper sheets that contained drawings of the stages, sets, and actor/characters of a popular play of the day. These were then sold as souvenirs that one could cut out and assemble and then perform. Often they were sold with images of the famous actors of the day as well as a truncated version of the script of the play. The sets were sold for 1 penny for the black and white versions and tuppence for the colored (hand colored) versions.

The performing companies gathering in Northern France came from France, Germany, England, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Israel, Iran, the Czech Republic, and, of course, LBMTheatre from California. The festival took place in seven different small villages around Mourmelon, and performers were either driven to their various venues or given the keys to a rental car (as in our case) so we could find the shows ourselves. This seemed daunting at first as the map we were given to locate the venues was quite simplified (consisting of a series of labeled circles with straight lines between them) but as it turned out, the roads were well marked, and the villages so small that if you drove into town 15 minutes before the show began , all you had to do was look for the cars and people milling around outside, and there would be your show.

Performance styles varied greatly within the various groups with the common thread being only that most of the figures and sets were made of paper. Those who know paper theatre may think of tiny stages with little, gem-like shows, but a number of the performances at the festival were quite large, some even full stage. An example of that was the opening performance (by festival organizer Alain Lecucq) of an adaptation of Moby Dick. The set consisted of a series of quite large “shipping” crates stacked in various configurations around the stage that were moved and reconfigured to form various small performance spaces, or opened to reveal scenes within, or arrayed into a whaling ship. Three performers told the tale of the great white whale with live accordion music and wonderful light effects. While the show was large, some of the little scenes were quite small, and I vowed to sit closer at other performances, as my eyes are not what they once were, and I felt I was missing some of the beautiful art work that went into the creation of the show. Another large paper show was the French group called Emile Sabord. Their delightfully playful show was rather vaudvillesque, with two very accomplished physical “clown” actors who took us all kind of crazy places, constantly surprising us with their vocal and physical comedy. The paper figures were only a part of this slapstick production which adults and children alike would love. A favorite moment was early on in the show when one of the actors suddenly and incongruously starts barking like a dog as both actors look around to see where the sound is coming from. Soon lights begin to come on in a paper apartment building behind them as sleeping residents are awakened by the sound. A baby awakes, and lights go off and come on as people keep trying to get back to sleep only to be disturbed again.

Another surprising and delightful performance, also from France, was called Le Cri Quotidien (The Daily Crier) by Les Anges au Plafond. The audience is greeted by two café tables on stage. From behind us come two women (obviously they don’t know each other) and each takes a table. One has a newspaper to read, and begins to do so as she cracks sunflower seeds with her teeth and tosses the shells about the room. The other woman opens the cello case she has carried in with her and starts to play. The two then proceed to do a delightful duet as news stories literally burst and rip up out of the newspaper accompanied the very animated spoken text and the virtuosity of the player of the cello. A fantastic performance with page after page of news stories about politics, car wrecks, chicken production, and population growth, all growing up out of the newspaper. As I watched her destroy paper prop after prop (the car wreck was quite smashing!) I could not help but think that she must have to rebuild much of her show each performance.

In contrast to the large shows, Hana Voriskova from the Czech Republic had by far the smallest show. The performance was 12 minutes long and the maximum audience size was one. You had to make an appointment to see the show, and when you entered and took your seat you dropped one coin (any coin) into the slot and the show began. What unfolded before your eyes was a simple and lovely story of three girls going on a summer trip to the beach for a swim. They take a train, a hike where they stop for lunch and a nap and finally arrive at the water where they remove their clothes and jump naked into the water only to swim among the clouds in a magical moment. Then the trip back is repeated in reverse. All along the way there is scene after scene where the perspective is changed, so that we see the train arrive, then we seem them inside looking out of the window as the scenery goes by, then we see them walking from the side, then from behind (and somewhat above), etc. Always surprising and very moving for such a simple, heartfelt show. To set the scale, I would say the girl figures were about 1 - 1 1/8 inch tall.

Our own shows were in a very small village called Baconnes, and as each of the performers were also put up with a local family, we stayed with the very kind, gracious and lovely family of the mayor of Baconnes (population: 600). Baconnes is a flower growing town (that is the chief industry) and if you think it was pretty in spring, you are right. We performed in what must have been the town’s community hall, and as our show was for adults only, we were paired with an art exhibit featuring lots of nude drawings and a large projected nude video project that was quite interesting (the artist, who spoke only French, tried very hard to explain his work to me, but as my French was very rusty, I am not sure I totally understood his project (but the model was very pleasing to look at.) We were very happy with the reception of our shows, and felt honored to have the most sold out performances of any of the companies (well, I guess the Czech show with an audience of one, was sold out every performance.) We performed “Tango for Tarzan” with French text and “The Widow” sung in English with a written French translation. As she normally does in the US. Valerie asked the French audience to sing along with the chorus on the Widow and I was quite surprised when they did, every single time! And quite well.

Each night of the festival there was a late night cabaret with a bar (snacks, beer and of course, champagne) and performances. There was a whole class of a Finnish puppetry school attending, and each of the about 20 students presented a paper theatre work at the cabaret over the course of the festival. It was wonderful to see the young people (all women) presenting such an interesting variety of expression in the various plays. This school of puppetry deserves a whole article in itself, and I will see if I can get to one in the future, but for now know that there is a school in Finland that is turning out puppeteer graduates every other year, and changing the puppetry demographic of Finland in the process.

There are so many wonderful shows that I don’t have time or room to get to, shows that deserve mention (and of course, many that were rumored to be excellent that I was not able to see due to our performance schedule.) Train Theatre of Israel presented a lovely performance all in large scale origami, where the characters transformed in front of your eyes. It varied in scale from normal origami size (5-8 inch range) up to a giant 3 foot origami bird that grew out of a paper tree that had been on the stage the whole show. Peter Peasegood from England, a 78 year old veteran of toy theatre, was as much the show as were his figures. He was a total character (performing with his wife assisting) and his banter (with the worst French accent I have ever heard) and losing and finding set pieces and figures could not have been funnier if it had been planned and rehearsed (or perhaps it was?) Either way the show was a hilarious delight and his special effects on stage were so well done that even expecting them I could not figure them out. Svalengangens Dukketeater from Denmark had a very beautiful show in which the art work was done by the Queen of Denmark! Pollidor Theatre from Germany showed us a marvelous underwater scene complete with fish swimming around and old fashioned divers (the kind with the big helmets) and had such beautiful movement of the figures. There were also several performances that I had already seen at the Preetz International Paper Theatre gathering that were also very good, but we did not have time to see them here (Joe Gladwin’s Paperplays from England, and Walter and Megi Koschwitz’s Der Urbanen Kriminalitat from Germany).

In addition to the performances there was an extensive exhibit of the printed theatre of W. G. Webb, from the mid 1800s, and his living descendant, Laurie Webb, there to curate and talk on the history of the Webb works.

All in all Alain Lecucq is to be congratulated on putting together an excellent festival. I did not see a single show that I did not enjoy and think was noteworthy, the staff was friendly and competent, the host families were hospitable, the venues suitable and the audiences enthusiastic. All in all this biennial festival is small but a very good festival for the paper theatre enthusiast. One downside for out-of-towners wanting to attend is it seemed that there were not many hotels or lodgings in the very rural region, but it seemed that at least some of those who came for the whole festival and did not perform were also connected with host families, and stayed in a French home (well worth it!)


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